First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Sonata

(This story has been updated in the seventh paragraph. The mileage for the Chevy Malibu has been corrected.)

Up Front

It's a terrific time to buy a family sedan. The most popular models—the Toyota (TM) Camry, Honda (HMC) Accord, Nissan (NSANY) Altima, Ford (F) Fusion, and General Motors' Chevy Malibu—are being discounted right now (more on that later). Meanwhile, the Hyundai (HYMLF) Sonata, which last year trailed the pack as a distant No. 6, has been redesigned for 2011. It is dramatically improved while maintaining its bargain basement price.

The front-wheel drive Sonata, Hyundai's best-selling U.S. model, is bigger, quicker, more sophisticated, and more fuel-efficient than the model it's replacing. The new Sonata, which went on sale early this year, matches or bests the competition by almost every measure. New hybrid and turbo-charged versions of the Sonata, due out late this year, will make Hyundai competitive in every niche of the midsize sedan market.

The Sonata's strongest selling point remains its low price. The entry-level GLS starts at just $19,915, with a stick shift, and $20,915, with a six-speed automatic, yet includes such standard equipment as full-power accessories, heated outside mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, a six-speaker sound system with steering-wheel-mounted controls, satellite radio, and Bluetooth connectivity.

The sporty SE, which starts at $23,315, has a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a dual exhaust that gives its engine two extra horsepower. Even a loaded up, top-of-the-line Sonata Limited, with everything from leather upholstery to a navigation system, backup camera, and heated front and rear seats, tops out at little more than $28,000.

The new Sonata also is much more technologically sophisticated than its predecessor. Hyundai decided to offer only a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine in the latest Sonata (the company says only 10 percent of customers want six-cylinder power), but the standard engine generates a hefty 198 horsepower, more than any other four-banger in the segment. It also has direct injection, a fuel-saving innovation usually seen in more expensive vehicles.

The Sonata's dramatic new styling, with its curvy, carved side profile and radically raked roofline, isn't just for show. The car's co-efficient of drag—a measure of the slipperiness of its body in wind tunnel tests—is just 0.28, nearly as low as that of the Toyota Prius.

As a result of such innovations, the new Sonata has the best mileage rating in its class, an impressive 22 miles-per-gallon in the city and 35 on the highway. That's better than the four-cylinder Camry (22/33), Malibu (22/33), Accord (21/31), and Altima (23/32), and comparable to the Fusion S (23/34).

Hyundai says the Sonata hybrid will get 37 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway, compared with 51/48 for the Prius and 41/36 for the Fusion Hybrid.

The 2011 Sonata doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings but earned the top "Good" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in offset crashes. Standard equipment includes front, side, and head-protecting airbags, as well as stability and traction control and four-wheel antilock brakes.

In 2009, the Sonata had sales of just 120,028, putting it way behind the Camry (356,824 sold) and Accord (290,056 sold, if you include the new Accord Crosstour), to say nothing of the Altima (203,568), Fusion (180,671), and Malibu (161,568). However, I predict that by 2011, with the new hybrid and turbo-charged versions adding to sales, the Sonata will be making a strong bid for the No. 3 spot.

Behind the Wheel

The Sonata has a well-constructed feel. Doors, trunk, and hood all feel solid when you open and close them, and the gaps surrounding them are very narrow. Steering is tight. Sound-proofing is noticeably better than before; Hyundai has even thickened the driver-side window to reduce road-noise in the driver's ear. The car remains quite quiet at highway speed.

However, neither the GLS nor the Limited (which are expected to account for 90 percent of sales) is much fun to drive. They're reasonably quick off the mark: Motor Trend magazine clocked the new Sonata at 8.1 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, significantly better than the previous model. But Hyundai put a priority on fuel economy rather than responsiveness. There's an annoying hesitation when you punch the gas, whether at low or highway speed, in automatic or manual shifting mode.

I didn't get to test-drive the SE, but if you're into sporty driving, the turbo-charged Sonata 2.0T is a lot more interesting, anyway. The company says its engine will generate 274 hp and 269 lb. ft. of torque, which (if priced as aggressively as the other versions of the Sonata) should make it one of the hottest low-priced cars on the market. Yet Hyundai says the turbo Sonata will get 34 mpg on the highway.

The Sonata and Honda Accord are the roomiest models in the segment—each is technically classified as "large" rather than midsized. The Sonata's total passenger volume is 103.8 cu. ft., second only to the Accord (106 cu. ft.), while trunk capacity is a voluminous 16.4 cu. ft., second only to the Fusion (16.5 cu. ft.). Head and legroom in the Sonata's front seat is adequate for most adults. Rear-seat legroom, rated at just 34.6 inches, is tight, but headspace is surprisingly good, considering the car's raked roofline.

The cloth and vinyl upholstery in the GLS is too plain for my taste, and the optional "leatherette" inserts aren't much of an upgrade. Leather seats, standard on the Limited, add considerable class. I particularly like the wine-colored leather.

Buy it or Bag It?

Hyundai has one of the best warranties on the market. That, plus dramatic improvements in quality and styling in recent years, have raised the company's standing with consumers. So far, Hyundai says, two-thirds of the 2011 Sonata's buyers are defecting from other brands, including 15 percent from Toyota and 9 percent each from Honda and Nissan. Another indication of Hyundai's rising reputation: The Automotive Lease Guide projects that the new Sonata will retain 53 percent of its value after three years, about the same as the Camry and Accord.

The Sonata's list price, of course, is lower. At 21 grand with an automatic transmission, the well-loaded GLS (which Hyundai expects to account for 60 percent of sales) lists for slightly less than a stripped-down, base-model Camry. By Hyundai's calculation, the GLS costs $2,384 less than a comparable four-cylinder 2011 Camry LE automatic, and about $1,650 less than a comparable four cylinder 2010 Accord LX or Altima 2.5S automatic. You save roughly similar amounts on the Sonata SE and Limited, Hyundai says.

However, discounting by competitors is wiping out much of the Sonata's price advantage. As I write this, Honda and Nissan are offering cut-rate loans on the Accord and Altima, and Toyota a $1,000 rebate on the Camry. Ford and Chevy are offering multiple rebates on the Fusion and Malibu that will give qualified buyers a discount at least as big as the Camry's.

So the best advice when it comes to family sedans these days is comparison-shop—and bargain hard.

Click here to see more of the new and much-improved 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

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